Why the "A" Word Isn't So Dirty

“Honor your father and mother... that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

Few things seem more American than rebelling against authority. After all, that’s how we started as a country, right?

Leaving aside lengthy historical and philosophical discussions of 1776, it shouldn’t take us long to realize that a revolt at our nation’s inception does not make revolt per se some sort of abiding standard. There’s a time when complaining and protesting is understandable, if not desirable. Yet more often than not, our posture towards government authority (and authority in general) remains in a sort of frozen state of whiny, petulant, adolescent rebellion.

There’s a reason why the fifth commandment focuses on honoring one’s parents. The way we view authority as a whole germinates from the way we are raised to view our parents’ authority. Indeed, it takes a lot of spiritual growth in our relationship with God to move above and beyond conceiving of Him as anything more than an overgrown version of our parents.

Today, we can see our lamentable failure of respect for authority cropping up at all levels of our society. Schools, for instance, have to spend increasing time and energy stepping in to fill the gaping hole of moral formation left by the dissolution of the family. Sadly, an ongoing succession of teachers, each serving their one-year term as interim parents, is unlikely to shift the fundamental relationship between that future adult and his authority figures. That relational dynamic to authority is cast and set by parents.

There’s nothing remarkable or apocalyptic about people in our age complaining about authority, even good authority. Think about what Moses’ suggestion box would have looked like. And he freed Israel from 400 years of bondage. The roots of rebellion against authority go back (as do all sins) to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Human beings have an unshakable hubris that we know better. We’re never far from the comfortable, imaginary throne of: “If only I was in charge.” It must be acknowledged, however, that the pitch and constancy of this chorus of disrespect have reached a terrible (and frankly embarrassing) height in our time. For anybody with the discernment to observe our country and culture from a distance, the tone of nagging negativity which seeps through the air from every outlet requires that our caricature be painted as a privileged, spoiled, tearful preteen.

This is not to say that there are no true problems among authority figures. There are many valid complaints. We should never cease the interminable conquest of reforming vices and cultivating virtue. However, the Bible holds up a different ideal when it comes to how we view public leaders. We are to pray for them, to be grateful for them, to encourage them, and honor them, regardless of how we evaluate their policies. What kind of world would we live in if we heard people, even occasionally, letting slip sentiments of gratitude for politicians?

Let me point to one specific iteration of this defect that has emerged in the past few decades, in order to demonstrate that our disrespect is more pronounced than during previous ages: the refusal to accept a reward from a President. If the award itself is despised, that is one thing, but I cannot conceive of an acceptable Biblical ground for refusing the reward due to the character or wisdom of the President. One might site 2 Kings 3:14, where Elisha consents to meet with Jehoram king of Israel, only out of respect for the other king, Jehoshaphat of Judah, who happens to be with him. This is plucking from a very different redemptive historic era, however, wherein the king of Israel also represented Israel as a religious body. Elisha’s disdain was based on how Jehoram’s actions reflected poorly on Israel as God’s people, not because of Jehoram’s foreign policy, or his ineffective taxation and spending plan.

In ages past, the principle of respect for authority was tied to a position, not a person. To varying degrees, our society has revised, reversed, or erased this distinction—and not without some benefits. We now resist the externalism of traditional hierarchical societies. In that sense, we are a people seeking to look on the heart, and not simply the outward appearance (I Sam 16:7). But this has not come without a cost. We now fuse person and position completely, attempting to calculate respect accordingly. As a result, we lose a quiet, reverent humility. We lose the temperance which holds us back from presuming ourselves to be rightful lord and judge of all things (if only we had the time to look into them). We cast off the restraint we deem unnecessary—or at least only necessary for societies where all citizens have not gained an equal standing. We feel it to be our civic and democratic duty to place every superior under the bar of our evaluation. All this, because we have such a distorted repugnance to recognizing rank.

Christians have no ground for boasting on this front. We are as vocal, if not more, than our neighbors in raging against the authority God has set above us (Rom 13:1). We should, instead, seek to be examples in praying for the welfare, wisdom, and righteousness of our leaders. We should teach children that, yes, you should think critically, and think for yourself, but also to move toward the higher calling, the nobler plane: to respect, even while disagreeing with authority.

Read previous articles in this series here.

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. He blogs regularly at Time & Chance.

Related Links

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"Submit to the Government Serving God to Save Lives" by Grant Van Leuven

"Notes from the Revolution" by Brad Green

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

"Secular Power, Authority, and Christian Obedience" by James Boice